There is undeniably something palpable in the air during Tom Tom Founders Festival week in Charlottesville, Virginia. Artists and innovators, students and professors, entrepreneurs and angels all coming together to celebrate the spirit of inspiration, hard-work and resiliency that rests at the heart of success. This fourth year of the Festival was especially impressive as it seemed that Tom Tom grew into its reputation, like a boy growing into his dad’s suit. Paul Beyer and the organizing staff rocked it on all counts, over delivering on everything and leaving us invigorated and primed to have a great year.
The Founders Summit was to me, the highlight of the week. We heard many a great story over the course of the day. But the heartfelt and personal account from Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian was one of the best. He regaled us with the humorous retelling of founding Reddit. The successes and failures and contorted pivots they went through to come up with The Frontpage of the Internet. Some of these maneuvers would make an X-Games snowboarder proud. Alexis’ talk was a perfect way to kick-off the day of dialogue and sharing as his Charlottesville homegrown brand of tech and business was so relatable. I mean he showed us the photographic evidence (oh lordy, the state of that bathroom!) of the real-life struggle to start-up and start-up. It was particularly interesting to see the humble beginnings of an idea that was solid but had come too soon - a food ordering app before the mobile technology was ready for it. How this idea later morphed into Reddit was an inspiring and self-effacing tale that revolved around some serious pitching and later some serious drinking. But mostly the story revealed and indomitable and yet humble way Alexis has about him. People just like this guy. He embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that calls to each of us (you know who you are!) and pushes us to find a way forward even if we aren’t exactly sure of where we’ll end up. It’s obsessive and pervasive. In the end, Alexis’ talk showed me that entrepreneurship is truly an expression of Faith.
Having faith is hard. Especially when the going gets hairy. Overcoming obstacles, listening to our intuition, choosing the right partners, building the right product at the right time…wow! That’s a lot of moving parts to keep straight. Experience tells us that Murphy’s Law will assert itself, throwing us curve balls and making a mess of our tightly wrought plans. It is our Faith, not necessarily the kind sought on a Sunday but the kind that lives deep inside of us, that allows us to persevere through the chaos. We must find a way to make something - to express something - to fix something - to make it better. That is what drives us to call on this faith and hold the helm when it seems that all hell is breaking loose. And yes, all hell will break loose at least once and usually much more than that.
What would Tom Tom be without highlighting new trends that are coming up over the horizon? I was really excited to learn about the trend toward conscious capitalism. Hearing first-hand accounts of how conscious capitalism manifests as rich, vibrant and investor-friendly company culture had me leaning in. But it wasn’t just me, I could feel the group collectively longing to work in companies like Kip Tindell’s The Container Store. There was a buzz in the air as we reflected on our own companies and how we prioritize resource investment. I would bet at the end of the day, there were several CEO’s who were looking at their calendars to see when they could gather their teams to establish some new ways of doing business. I know I was. This trend, which hopefully becomes the new norm, is one where the employee is the most important part of the equation, followed closely by the customer, is changing not only the company, but the way investors view them. A company practicing conscious capitalism appears more likely to receive funding these days since they demonstrate strong positive values that are quantitative in the eyes of an investor. What a powerful shift in the world! And thanks to Kip for sharing his story, literally, in his book Uncontainable, we can all bring a piece of that home to nurture and grow.
If Entrepreneurship is an expression of Faith, and it is from my view, and we’re building companies with a conscience, we must also be guided by something. For me the guidance is our intuition. The Summit lightning talks touched upon this after lunch when we treated to some phenomenal examples of intuitive professional development. From Dave Frey of Silent Partner Management, Becca McCharen from Chromat and Artist, Claude Wampler we heard how important it is to follow the beat of your own Tom-Toms. Say, yes and stay open to possibility and above all DO something that expresses what you really love. I appreciated that there was some practical advice thrown in here; keep your day job and work on your hobby until something changes; the Universe will absolutely put you in just the right place at just the right time so be ready; love everyone and be amazed at what happens when you do.
And if all of this feels too intangible and ethereal, you are right. There comes a time to put all of it together and MAKE something. Dale Dougherty, the father of the maker movement brought it all home for me with his illustration of how we humans are designed to create stuff. We are drawn to gizmos, gadgets, recipes, science experiments and impossible Ikea furniture because we love to do stuff with our whole selves; body, mind and spirit. This holistic approach living reflects who we are as a species and how many entrepreneurs live every day. There was a great exploration of whether or not we could teach entrepreneurship to students. Becca McCharen lead off with a resounding “no”. Huh, really? Is the special blend of fearlessness, tenacity, resiliency and adaptiveness really so difficult to cultivate in a person? Can it not be taught in schools? While it was agreed that the skills that support entrepreneurship can be taught, the innate magic that really makes us tick…maybe not so much.
Entrepreneurship is not for the timid, nor for those who prefer to clock-in and clock-out. It is a lifestyle. It’s a way of walking in the world that keeps us close to the murmuring of our muses and firmly focused on the growing edge of innovation. And Tom Tom gives us a big boost with this week-long celebration of what Charlottesville is and what we are becoming. Each year, it grows as more people learn about this innovation watering hole and come to slake their thirst and share an experience with kindreds.
In a conversation over lunch with some new Tom Tom-found friends I wondered if there is an after-effect of Tom Tom like a baby boom after a big storm or event. Does all this inspired energy find a place to manifest in the world over coffee or cold craft beers, turning ideas into plans and plans into products? Do we have an uptick in new partnerships, investments and start-ups forming in the days and weeks post-Tom-Tom? I would bet we do. It’s hard to imagine that the community would not give birth to new ideas after such a broad fertilization of our collective potential.
Well done, Tom Tom Founder Festival! Well done. See you next year for another invigorating inoculation of insight and inspiration.